YouTube and digital sharecropping

The Verge reports that with YouTube’s newest algorithms, independent creators are greatly disadvantaged over large corporate brands:

YouTube creators need to get millions more views than late-night TV shows in order to appear in YouTube’s Trending section, according to a study conducted by a YouTube channel popular among creators. The Trending section appears on YouTube’s homepage and can potentially direct thousands of views to a video, but YouTube seems to make it far harder for individuals to be featured than for large brands.
Using data scrapped from 40,000 videos, the study found that creators, like Logan Paul, need to reach about 11 million views on a video before it hits the Trending section. Comparatively, segments from TV shows like The Tonight Show only need a couple hundred thousand views.

Small YouTube creators and their fans built YouTube from nothing. But free video hosting is one of the most low-margin activities there is–without advertising bucks.

For a while, YouTube/Google execs seemed to honestly believe that they could build a viable, long-term business model based on “long-tail” ad revenues from thousands of small creators.

That dream ended for good in 2017 and 2018, when a variety of political controversies and publicity stunts (the jackass who filmed dead bodies in Japan’s “suicide woods” comes to mind) made small channels anathema for paying advertisers. From the advertisers’ perspective, there was simply too much risk involved.

So YouTube pivoted. They demonetized small- and medium-sized channels, and tightened the criteria for acquiring monetization in the future. Although YouTube would never admit it, part of the motive was to disincentivize small creators, whose behavior is difficult to monitor.

And now, YouTube has overtly changed its algorithms to favor big corporate brands.

This is the danger of digital sharecropping–building your creative enterprise on someone else’s platform. I understand that video makers face special challenges in this regard; but it is never a good idea to spend much time making content for social media sites that you don’t own and control.

This is why I more or less shuttered my YouTube and Twitter accounts. My Facebook account is a shell, too. I only use these sites for posting links. And I have no intention of wasting any time on Reddit.

There is nothing wrong with using Facebook to keep in touch with your high school classmates. If you’re a creator, though, never build your platform on real estate that you don’t own.

Wattpad and digital sharecropping

Last September, the folks over at Forbes wrote a story about Wattpad and its highly exploitive (though completely voluntary) business model:

Wattpad has more than 4 million writers, who post an average of 300,000 pieces a day. The company brings in an estimated $19 million in revenue, mostly from ads on its site and from stories sponsored by companies like Unilever who want to advertise alongside a specific writer or genre. Nearly all its writers are unpaid; several hundred make money from ad-sharing revenue and 200 of those also earn from writing sponsored content and inking publishing deals with Wattpad. That lean business model means Wattpad is profitable. It has few costs beyond bandwidth, its 130 employees and the Toronto offices. The model “is a great way to seek talent without having to pay huge amounts for it,” says Lorraine Shanley, a publishing industry consultant.

Forbes, September 2018

4 million writers, and only a minuscule number (about .005%) make any money for their efforts. 

Wattpad is a textbook example of digital sharecropping.

I have nothing against the concept of web fiction, web serials, or posting fiction for free on the Internet. Much of the content of this site, after all, is web fiction. (I have my own little Wattpad going on here.)

But the defining characteristic of digital sharecropping is the socialization of effort, and the privatization of rewards. Wattpad earns $19 million in revenue, because writers choose to post their fiction there, rather than writing on their own sites

I can already anticipate your “but….” rebuttals.

Yes, I realize that only a handful of these writers, if they created their own web presences, would garner any appreciable audience, or earn any real revenue. But let me ask you: How much chance do most writers have on Wattpad, amid 4 million other writers, posting 300,000 pieces per day?

The odds of genuine success are about the same either way. The writers who are standing out on Wattpad could, with a bit of effort, stand out on their own online platforms. And then they would make a whole lot more money than Wattpad is paying them, you can be sure. Even more importantly, they would control their own platforms. 

Digital sharecropping works because too many creative types are desperately slavering for any form of immediate recognition, like a thirteen year-old boy hopelessly infatuated with an eighteen year-old girl.  

Look at me! Look at me now!A like on a Facebook post! A retweet! A like on a YouTube video! Oh, any form of recognition will do! Pleeeeaaase!

The owners of the social media giants understand this weakness of all creative people, and they eagerly exploit it. 

Resist. If you can’t afford your own independently hosted WordPress site, then start a free blog on Google’s blogger platform. 

Yes, Google ultimately controls Blogger. But there you at least have some independence. (You can also run your own affiliate links, and eventually qualify for Adsense revenue).

Whatever you do—if you’re a writer—don’t post your fiction on Wattpad. Don’t be a sucker. 

Just as Facebook and Twitter have become the cancer that destroyed blogging, so Wattpad has become the cancer that threatens to destroy independently published web fiction. 

Don’t fall for the scam.